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Hong Kong’s media landscape for children has been heavily populated with Japanese and American imports over the past few decades, and it’s fair to say that Hongkongers share much of their fondest childhood television memories with their counterparts abroad. However, even amidst the broad arena of international competitors, there is one homegrown cartoon figure that has managed to hold a tight grip on our hearts and leave a lasting impression like no other: McDull.
Making its debut in 1995, the warm-hearted piglet and his crew have kept its audience laughing and tearing up in equal measures for over two decades; but beyond a mere source of entertainment for kids, McDull has grown into a local sensation with a loyal fanbase spanning generations, a household name, and above all, a cultural icon. Let us awaken your inner child and take you on a retrospective journey through the history of Hong Kong’s most beloved animated piglet.
At the heart of the iconic franchise are the misadventures of a young pig named McDull as he navigates the rocky shoals of childhood with his mother in modern-day Hong Kong. How did such a simple storyline become a massive and universally loved hit? It all began with a comic strip series that starred not McDull, but his distant cousin McMug.
The brainchild of cartoonist-and-writer duo Alice Mak and Brian Tse, McMug was first published in 1988 in the Ming Pao Weekly magazine. Many may find it surprising that the core demographic of readers were originally educated adults and that the comic strip was a platform to address contemporary social issues and aspects of local culture.
However, seeing as the premise revolving around a young, kindergarten-aged piglet from Lantau Island would lend itself well to child-friendly content, the McMug comics expanded into the children’s market just a few years later, appearing in the magazine’s offshoot publication Ming Pao Children’s Weekly and Yellow Bus, a children’s magazine founded by the two creators themselves. The comic strip garnered significant attention across the city for its Hong Kong-style humour and local references, but little did people know the success that was to follow when McDull came along.
Before becoming the star of his own series, McDull was a side character in the McMug comics, a fellow classmate and McMug’s only pig friend at Springfield Flowers Kindergarten. The audience immediately fell in love with the character, who was considered more naïve and sillier than the original protagonist. And thus, when the opportunity arose for the series to come to life from the pages of a comic strip onto the big screen in 2001, McDull was elected as the main character in a film entitled My Life as McDull (2001).
Keeping to the comics’ winning formula of dry humour, down-to-earth themes about life in Hong Kong, and a hefty dose of raw, heartfelt emotion, the movie was a critical and box office success, bagging multiple film awards and earning wide recognition both locally and overseas. The film catapulted McDull into instant stardom and cult-like status.
Within a short span of time, the wide-eyed pig became ubiquitous across media outlets, proving to be a powerful force in the world of local comics, children’s films, and television in subsequent years. In 2011, it even got its own bronze statue erected on the Avenue of Stars in Tsim Sha Tsui alongside local icons like Anita Mui and Bruce Lee!
Living in a single-parent, grassroots household with his pragmatic and wilful mother Mrs Mak, the very thing that makes McDull unique is that he is utterly ordinary by all standards. He is not born of riches, nor does he boast any superpowers or excel in any particular field. On the contrary, McDull is known for getting bad grades at school and struggles to live up to his mother’s expectations. In stereotypical Hong Kong parenting fashion, Mrs Mak wants her son to attend a top university and become a professional, but all signs point to McDull falling short of these goals.
And yet, McDull always manages to pick himself back up and try again after setbacks, facing adversities with optimism and perseverance. Unfazed by the odds working against him, he continues to dream big, whether it’s to one day be an Olympic gold medallist like Hong Kong windsurfer Lee Lai-shan or saving his kindergarten from closing down.
Viewers often find themselves drawn to McDull’s innocence, kind-hearted nature, and appreciation of life even when it’s far from perfect. In My Life as McDull (2001), McDull expresses to his mother his dream to go on holiday in the Maldives. Mrs Mak knew that she could not afford such a trip, but dedicated to fulfilling her son’s wishes, she takes him to Victoria Peak instead, making him pack for the trip and putting up makeshift signs along the way pointing to the Hong Kong airport and the Maldives. With the views obscured by rain and fog, McDull completely bought into the ruse, regarding the trip as the most magical day of his childhood.
For all of McDull’s gullibility and naïvety, the audience cannot help but admire his sense of contentment and joy from something as simple as breaking out of routine and spending a day at the Peak with his mother.
While other local cartoons and comic book characters have had their share of the limelight, McDull is widely regarded to be the first of its kind to represent Hong Kong and its people on a broad scale. Beyond providing endless entertainment with its dry humour and ensemble of quirky yet lovable characters, McDull encapsulates the spirit of Hong Kong to its very core. On the surface, McDull may seem juvenile, trivial, and even absurd at times, but beyond the smokescreen of adorable animals and funny punchlines that children cackle over, there is a depth and subtle undercurrent of social satire that grown-ups are able to appreciate as well.
The series makes its distinction by shifting away from the shiny veneer of Hong Kong’s buzzing metropolitan nightlife and glamorous dining scene, and instead poignantly spotlighting the day-to-day struggles that grassroots citizens face, including the pressures of a results-driven education system and dealing with financial debt. It does not shy away from these harsher realities and social issues, but instead grapples with them head-on, ultimately showcasing the tenacity, diligence, and resilience that characterise the city and its people.
From the plotlines to the culturally relevant jokes and stylistic choices, the creators have woven local elements into every aspect of the cartoon series so that there is no mistaking McDull being is born and bred in Hong Kong. In addition to relying on Cantonese wordplay and cultural references for humour, the graphics are notably known for fusing the fantastical with hyper-realistic shots of Hong Kong.
Using both live object shooting and 3D computer graphics, you’ll find colourful and cartoonish animals inserted into hyper-realistic spaces that put the gritty and unvarnished side of Hong Kong’s urban landscape on full display. The illustration of local landmarks and signage further mark the setting of McDull as distinctly Hong Kong.
As charming and lovable as the iconic piglet may be, timing undeniably played a huge factor in McDull’s immense success. Emerging in the 1990s around a time when Hong Kong’s economic and political climate was full of uncertainty and rapid change, McDull was not only a cartoon series that Hong Kong people could resonate with on a deeper, cultural level, but more crucially, it served as a well-timed reminder of Hong Kong’s long-standing strengths of resilience and perseverance. Bringing much-needed levity to difficult situations and providing the audience with a comedic escape, McDull encouraged Hong Kongers to tackle challenges with a positive frame of mind like its eponymous character.
Some express that McDull is not quite as pertinent today as it once was, while others argue that its core themes of dreaming big and perseverance will never fade out of relevance. Regardless of what the zany stories may mean to us today, we can all agree that the figure of McDull has evolved into something much bigger.
Over the course of seven feature films, numerous comic books, a television show, and a torrent of McDull-themed merchandise that continues to be circulated, McDull has become an icon that holds its own weight and a deeply cherished collective memory. Having served as an anchor of assurance for Hong Kong people through tough times, our tender love for this homegrown unconventional hero is yet to be matched by any other cartoon figure.